Thoughts of technology in the wake of a tragedy

“Public calamity is a mighty leveller” – Edmund Burke

On Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami hit my country. In a matter of hours, over 30,000 were dead, thousands more missing and 1% of the population displaced. We had never seen devastation on this scale – the human cost of the civil war over 25 years was itself made trivial in comparison, a ‘mere’ 65,000 in 25 years of conflict.

Recovering from a late night office party the night before, I was at home when I first heard the news. The full scale of the devastation was only dawned later on in the week, when the body count kept rising by thousands each day, and the dead had to be unceremoniously buried for fear of disease.

Beyond the gaze of the global media, this is a tragedy that hits the soul of a country. Its poorest communities are the majority of the dead or missing. Those who have survived, wish they had not – entire communities, villages, livelihoods have been lost.

It is impossible to articulate fully the scale of the disaster, or the breadth of its destruction. It is, by extension, impossible to map or quantify the toll of the tsunami on the communities it has affected, a toll that will be a heavy burden for many more years to come for those who now have to move on best they can.

Sri Lanka does not need more trauma or grief. We have had more than enough of both. And yet, can a tsunami also be an act of cleansing? Can it, if we creatively imagine ways to grapple with our loss, be a catalyst to engender trust at a time when, in the peace process, there was a severe erosion of it? Can the same water, which took away so much of a nation’s soul, also act as a giver – a giver of a renewed hope to create and nurture links between human beings bound by a tragedy that saw no ethnic or geographic boundaries?

The Japanese word for crisis is kiki and is made up of two parts: Danger and Opportunity. Danger (the left part of the Kanji) pictures a man on the edge of a precipice. Opportunity (the right part) is a reminder of the opportunity that can come out of danger.

Opportunity must not be confused with opportunism, of which, even in a time of national crisis, we have seen aplenty. Opportunism is the re-branding of self-interested and partisan politics, a bloodied sceptre that uses every opportunity to raise its head in Sri Lanka. The present crisis, however, hold within it a unique historical opportunity that can, in ways hitherto unimaginable, bring communities together and create inclusive, holistic and sustainable processes by which we can re-shape our collective destiny as a nation. In this rubric, the tsunami is symbolical of more than a destructive force, but one that binds communities who experience its power and live through it, to a greater humanity that resides within all of us – a humanity that crosses identity groups of ethnicity, colour, race or religion.

What then is the role of technology at this time?

To many, it is a simple question to answer. There is no role, because the needs on the ground require physical interventions, not virtual promises. Because PC’s and modems can’t help those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or, worse, gangrene. Because the internet is useless as a purveyor of information to places which are no longer on the map, let alone in the umbrella of mobile telephony.

I question the validity of these assumptions and in place of scepticism, submit that without technology, it will never be possible to mould aid and relief interventions that resonate with the real needs on the ground, in a timely and more importantly, sustainable manner.

On a personal note, from the night of Boxing Day to date, I have spent more hours in front of an overworked and underpowered laptop than I ever have before, trying to provide information to organisations, local and international, based in Colombo, to help them with the immediate needs of aid and relief coordination.

But more importantly, we need to think beyond the immediate needs. When the global media attention reaches its zenith in the immediate aftermath of human suffering on a grand scale and the leaders of the Global North are awakened to a moral duty to help those less fortunate, the money that flows in are more than adequate to meet the needs of the field operations in the immediate future.

Medium to long term needs are another matter, but critically, also where the long term impact of the tsunami will be most keenly felt. To not think about medium to long term needs is dangerous, because an over emphasis on the immediate needs can lead to the creation of ineffective mechanisms for, inter alia, aid delivery and relief operations that inadvertently sow the seeds for future conflict and structural inequality.

The sensitive and creative use of technology can help nurture change processes that can lead to more peaceful and sustainable futures and avoid the pitfalls of partisan aid and relief operations. Providing for mobile telephony that give remote communities access to constantly updated weather and geological information and helping create endogenous early warning systems using local knowledge, using tele-centres to serve as repositories of information on emergency procedures and evacuation guidelines, coordinating the work of aid agencies on the ground ensuring the delivery of aid and relief to all communities, monitoring aid flows and evaluating delivery, creating effective mechanisms for the coordination of reconstruction and relief efforts, creating avenues for effective communication between field operations and warehouses based in urban centres, creating secure virtual collaboration workspaces that bring in individuals and organisations sans ethnic, geographic or religious boundaries, enabling centralised data collection centres that collect information from the field and distribute it to relevant stakeholders are just some of the immediate uses for technology.

In the longer term, it is imperative to use trust relationships nurtured in virtual domains at present (for example, in state and non-state actors coming together in virtual spaces for aid and relief coordination) to nourish the larger dialogues in the peace process – on land, resource utilisation and fiscal structures. The effective cooperation on secure and reliable virtual communities can lead to the creation of champions within identity groups who, in liaison with like minded individuals and organisations from elsewhere, create bulwarks against future regression into parochial and zero-sum negotiations, that don’t fully acknowledge the shared trauma and suffering of communities. Technology can help knowledge flows from the diaspora to directly influence developmental processes on the ground, by-passing, if necessary, third parties to directly empower communities. Tele-centres can be repositories of alternative livelihoods in areas that it is now impossible to carry on traditional modes of living. Using cheaply available self-powered digital radios with broadband downlinks, it is possible to empower even the remotest communities with information that they can translate into knowledge to help them rebuild lives and create connections with others who have suffered the same plight. Online dispute resolution can use organic and local knowledge frameworks with creative and modern dispute resolution mechanisms to effectively address the problems that individuals and communities will face on the ground with limited access to resources. Beyond the mere provision of computers, and eschewing the notion that ICT can by itself effectively address the myriad of problems that the tsunami has left in its wake, a pragmatic approach to the use of technology in post-disaster situations can nourish and empower those who have been working for peace in Sri Lanka.

It is unlikely that a single tsunami will wipe out identities that many have died to protect and generations have fought to keep alive. However, we are confronted now with a unique historical event that can change the contours of what was a floundering peace process and re-energise it with dialogue that crosses parochial and partisan boundaries and explores, through suffering common to all communities, ways in which sustainable futures for all can be built.

This then is our burden – to remember Boxing Day 2004 not only as a tragedy, but as an opportunity that allowed leaders and communities to come together to address the need to rebuild lives and shattered dreams.

Through the cacophony of voices vying for attention in Sri Lanka today lies dormant the silence of a larger dream – the aspiration of communities to live in peace.

Let us, in 2005, give life to this silent prayer.

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